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Swiss Bank Accounts Frozen in Marcos Case

Hearing: L.A. judge rejects bank lawyers' arguments that documents showing $13 billion in assets are forgeries.

September 30, 1997|HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES LEGAL AFFAIRS WRITER

A Los Angeles federal judge ordered a freeze Monday on several Swiss bank accounts that may contain nearly $13 billion hidden in trust for the widow and children of the late Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, according to testimony at a court hearing presented by a lawyer for Philippine human rights victims.

U.S. District Judge Manuel L. Real granted the preliminary injunction covering eight accounts in the Union Bank of Switzerland over the vigorous objections of bank lawyers who asserted that the documents that the rights victims are relying on are forgeries. They said bank officials told them that the accounts in question contained less than $6 million and that none of the money could be linked to the family of Marcos, who died in exile in 1989.

But Real said that based on evidence presented to him at the lengthy hearing, there was a likelihood that the plaintiffs would prevail and would suffer greater harm than the defendants if the injunction was not granted. Real said that if the accounts did not exist then the bank would not be hurt by issuance of the injunction.

"As Chick Hearn says, 'No harm, no foul,' " Real said, referring to the aphorism frequently used by the Los Angeles Lakers' longtime broadcaster.

The authenticity of virtually every document introduced by the plaintiffs' lawyer was challenged by bank attorneys during the hearing. Further complicating the proceedings was the fact that both sides introduced signed documents from the same Swiss lawyer containing diametrically contradictory statements.

The stormy hearing marked the latest chapter in a decade-long battle to determine just how much wealth Marcos and his cronies stole from their native land. Until now, Marcos' adversaries in the Philippines and elsewhere had alleged that Marcos and his wife Imelda had employed a series of elaborate financial schemes to illegally build a $5-billion fortune during 20 years in office. But on Monday, the sums at issue were more than double previous estimates.

One of the key documents introduced by Robert Swift, the lawyer for nearly 10,000 Filipinos who won a $1.9-billion judgment against Marcos' estate in 1994, states that as of June 30, 1997 there was $12.9 billion in an account in the Union Bank of Switzerland in the name of the Sandy Foundation.

Soon after the Marcos family fled into exile, Philippine investigators said that the Sandy Foundation, based in Vaduz, Lichtenstein, was one of several sham foundations set up to hide Marcos' assets.

Another document introduced by Swift was a Sept. 15 letter purportedly signed by a Lichtenstein lawyer, Peter Ritter, stating that he had been for many years the trustee of the Sandy Foundation, which "was established in 1970 by the former president of the Philippines, Ferdinand E. Marcos." The letter also states that on Aug. 21, 1986, after going into exile, Marcos signed a power of attorney giving his son Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and his daughter Imee Marcos authority over precious-metal accounts at Union Bank of Switzerland.

Ritter's letter further states that there have been a number of sales of the precious metal accounts, including large sales in June.

However, lawyers for the bank offered two affidavits from Ritter, challenging the authenticity of letters bearing his name that were introduced by the plaintiffs in court Monday. In these affidavits, Ritter contended that his signature was forged. "The signature is not mine, and the typed name is not in a form that I employ," Ritter said in the affidavit.

However, Judge Real refused to accept any of the affidavits offered by the bank lawyers. He said that bank officials, or others supporting the bank's position, had to first come to a U.S. court and subject themselves to cross-examination.

Bank lawyers said they will appeal Real's rulings.

During the hearing, Swift called to the stand Anthony Silano, who described himself as a Connecticut real estate developer hoping to gain a share of whatever money is recovered in the case. Silano testified he obtained documents from Ritter while in pursuit of information about hidden Marcos accounts. He said he obtained other documents from Reiner Jacobi, an Australian man who also has been involved in the search for Marcos' assets and is now a fugitive from drug charges in Florida.

Silano said he had met Ritter at his office in Lichtenstein. He was not asked, nor did he volunteer, why Ritter decided to make revelations about his relationship to the Marcos family.

Silano also described how he and associates of his in Switzerland hacked into Union Bank's computer system in Switzerland in search of Marcos' assets, which have been the subject of intense investigation by Philippine authorities and private parties since Marcos went into exile.

Silano said that after meeting Ritter earlier this year in Lichtenstein the Marcos trustee called him several times in Connecticut and that he returned the calls from pay phones.

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